Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Vote for Timbuctou for one of the "New 7 Wonders of the World"

In line with my effort to promote tourism here in Mali, please go to this website ( and vote for Timbuctou to be included in the new list of Seven Wonders of the World.

Thanks so much! I'll try and get that final post up about my return trip through Benin from Ghana soon...

Important article about the dire situation in Darfur

Please read this article written by a close friend of mine about the situation in Darfur, Sudan.

Summary: This post is as distilled a version of the conflict in Darfur as I can adequately produce without trimming critical detail. Genocide, despite vows of the developed world to act, continues today. Take copious notes and bare witness.

Read the full article here.

Very belated videos from Festival sur le Niger

I'm getting the hang of this [video thing]...

Here are two videos from the Festival sur le Niger last February. The first one is an assortment of clips of some local dance groups and what not (sorry for the sideways part, I couldn't figure out how to rotate it). The second is of Habib Koite singing Abana - he was my favorite performer of the festival. From what my mum tells me, he just played at Belly Up in Aspen.

So... anyone want to come out here for 2008???

Some video from Ghana

I'm trying something new with YouTube - adding videos!

I think you'll have to be signed up for YouTube and signed in on the computer you're using to be able to watch the video.

Below is a video I took at a party in Accra, Ghana. My friends were taking me around and this was one of the stops... Not the greatest video but I'm just getting used to this and will try and upload videos more often as bandwidth allows. Let me know if you encounter any issues. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Accra and West...

My long journey to the coast was over and before I get to the Nut Rehab Center, I must get through the story of Accra and all my experiences leading up to this interesting twist to my trip.

My first activity upon arriving in Accra was a two day intensive seminar on exporting artisan handicrafts and textiles put on by WATH (West African Trade Hub) which in turn is funded by USAID. The entire training was very professional – since there were both English and French speakers there, they had translators and earpieces for everyone – think the UN General Assembly similar to scenes from the Interpreter.

Kathy came down with her counterpart from Segou to participate in the seminar – this makes sense since she is working directly with the Malian governmental coordination of artisans for the region of Segou. Forget about figuring out what that means – simply she tries to help artisans in Segou in any way they need it and in this case on bringing their work up to exporting standards. I won’t go into too much detail, but the seminar was pretty interesting even if most Malian artisans are not quite at the exporting level. Some of the simpler more fundamental principles covered are hopefully transferable back in Mali (since we are now back - today, Kathy is giving a brief presentation on what the seminar covered here in Segou).

Like I mentioned in my previous post, Ghanaians are very easy to talk to – I met quite a few very interesting locals and had a great time going around with them. One night, a couple of us went out dancing (if I can figure out how, there should soon be a video via YouTube of some dancing from one our stops) and were shown very generous hospitality from our hosts. Since living in Mali, I hardly ever drink – rarely with other volunteers and never with Malians (they’re Muslim) – for some reason it just doesn’t agree with me. Even so, just the simple act of going out with Ghanaians was a welcome change. Sure, I am sociable with Malians but they don’t hold ‘parties’ very often – where a lot of people gather together - hang out, dance, etc. Sitting around and drinking tea is their version of regular socializing which is not as familiar to me and harder to just sit and talk when done in another language.

On the Saturday after the seminar, one of our new friends, Andrew took us in his car (yes, like I mentioned before, some of them actually own cars down there) to Bojo Beach a little west of the capital. We spent the entire afternoon relaxing. There was a volleyball net set up and since we were unable to find a proper ball, ended up using a soccer ball – something I don’t recommend; soccer balls are quite hard for volleyball. Never-the-less, it quenched our craving for sport and was a pleasant finish to the day.

Eventually, we pried ourselves out of the capital and jumped on a bus heading west. We had herd of this beautiful beach with a reputed place to stay – The Green Turtle… all we knew is it was somewhere out that direction and assumed it was near Cape Coast, the former capital during British times and the next big city west of Accra. After about 4 hours, we got off the bus at Cape Coast only to find out we were just half way to our destination. While waiting for the next bus, we experienced our very first rain storm since last October! I miss rain and for that matter, any form of precipitation – something lacking up in Mali. The hours flew by while we were entranced by the torrential storm. Eventually, a plush new state owned bus pulled up with air-conditioning and all… something under any other circumstances would have thrilled us. Only by that point we were soaking wet outside the bus (yet still relatively warm) – this quickly changed with the addition of scarcely found air-conditioning – we were instantly freezing! You have no idea how bizarre the whole situation was to us. We were conflicted with actually feeling cold to the point of blue lips and chattering teeth and the mere novelty of being cold – a sensation long since felt in Mali. It bordered on hilarious.

Finally, we arrived at the Green Turtle late that afternoon where we promptly dropped off our bags, threw on our swimsuits and were, within seconds of arriving, swimming in the ocean. We capped off the day with a nice dinner of swordfish and rice and beans before retiring thoroughly exhausted to bed.

The entire next day was spent lying in bed with a horrendous case of food poisoning. Given our limited time schedule this was quite a tragedy to waste an entire day clutching our stomachs between races to the bathroom. We made the best of it and tried to appreciate the fact that we were on the beach.

On the way back east towards Accra, we visited some old colonial forts originally built for trading and later converted during colonial times to slave prisons. We visited the Elmina and Cape Coast forts/castles taking a tour in each. It was a humbling and somber experience. For me, it was hard to see some of the places and then to hear how they were used. I can hardly imagine what it is like for the descendants of former slaves coming to see where their ancestors passed through. I would equate it to what a Jew might feel when visiting Auschwitz and all the grief and emotion that accompanies visiting sites of so much brutality and evil. It is certainly strange to be given a tour by a Ghanaian, whose ancestors were potentially abducted during the slave trade, and then to think how strange it might be for the guide to be telling this history to the visiting white western tourist… you get the idea – but in any case, a necessary visit and an understanding of a history that should never be forgotten.

Ok, so you’re probably wondering where the Nut Rehab Center comes in. I’m getting to it… While visiting Elmina, I went to their newly established tourist information center. This was particularly interesting to me since I am currently trying to start up something resembling an information center back in Segou, Mali. After talking for a while eventually befriending the gentleman staffing the office, we asked him if he knew anywhere cheap in Cape Coast that we could spend the night. He said sure, called a friend staying at the Red Cross office there and asked if there was room – apparently they also rent out rooms (like a hostel) when they’re not busy. We shared a taxi (since he lived close to the hostel) and got off at the Cape Coast Regional Headquarters of the Red Cross. Upon further scrutiny of the sign while walking in, I noticed a slightly shorter sign welcoming us to the Red Cross “Nut Rehab Center”. Hmmm… Um… Kathy? Where are we?

We were instantly suspicious but after a little inspection, it seemed harmless enough and dropped off our bags – we just agreed to make sure to lock our doors before going to bed. Hopefully we wouldn’t need earplugs to drown out any strange noises in the middle of the night. (We never did resolve the issue of why his friend was staying there… just left that one a mystery).

The night passed peacefully and we left for Accra that afternoon after visiting the Cape Coast castle. We spent the night with an old Peace Corps volunteer from Segou – she is the one who contacted Kathy about the WATH training since she used to work with artisans while living in Segou. We were up early and off on the next leg of our journey: east through Togo and Benin before turning back north to Mali. I’ll leave you there and fill you in with the rest of my trip in the next edition.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ghana. What a difference...

The coast!! Yay! I’m finally to the coast. After three full nights and days on a bus, I finally arrived in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Even though it would still be considered poor by most of you, Ghana is worlds apart from Mali in so many ways and oh, what a relief it was to go there!

Just as a little reality check for myself, every now and then I go back and read my post about the differences between Segou, Mali and Aspen, USA. I haven’t looked at the statistics for Ghana, but within a few hours of driving down the road there, a few things jump out at you.

For one, the people seemed to be more aware of their situation in relation to poverty and development. Sure, in Mali, I can talk to Malians about development and trying to improve their lives but only a very select few and of those only to a limited extent (forgetting for a moment about the language barrier which I’ll get to later). For the most part, they are so concerned with making ends meet – the present, rather than the future, is what is most important. Talking about or planning for more than a few years down the road is almost unheard of. The discussion is usually more focused on what season it is (dry/hot season or rainy season) and what will happen between now and the next, a year or less away. This short-term vision makes development and change quite difficult.

Somehow, Ghana amid ultra high inflation, relatively similar resources, and a colonial past has been able to move forward and actually dig itself up out of extreme poverty. This is not to say they are free and clear with nothing to worry about but they are, as I said before, worlds apart from some of their neighbors with relatively similar starting points.

Some of the little, simple things tell of the large amount of progress attained in the last few decades. For instance, while driving down the road, there are the usual vendors on the side of the street trying to sell various items like nuts, fruit, tissue, water, newspapers, juices, etc. Sounds normal right? Did you notice newspapers? Does that stand out at all? It should.

If vendors are making money selling newspapers that implies the people buying them are able to read. Remember the statistic about Mali – 81% of the population is illiterate? Just the simple fact that vendors are able to make a living selling newspapers to the passing motorists tells a lot. People can read! They can conduct real businesses, access the internet, etc.

In Mali, very few people own a motorized vehicle let it be a car, truck, motorcycle, or moto – at most they might have an old beat-up bicycle (I’m referring to the total population). Of the few who do own something (which is largely limited to cities and large towns), they own a moto and rarely more than one per family. I wouldn’t say motos are cheap, but they’re a lot less expensive than a car. If a family owns a car, it is a big deal. In small villages, usually only a few families might have motos with nobody owning a car. Even in Segou, a large regional capital, it is still a pretty big status symbol to own a car.

When I arrived in Ghana, while driving around, I noticed right away that something was different. There were no motos! Pretty much to the same extent it is rare to own a motorcycle in the US; it was about the same in Ghana. People have that much more disposable income to have the ability to own and maintain cars! (I will add that the traffic was considerably worse there as a result, reminding me of Dakar, Senegal – which now that I think about it, had relatively few motos too but not nearly as few as Ghana nor was the phenomena as widespread outside of the capital).

Lastly, Ghanaians, when they want to reach you on your cell phone, call you. They don’t send you a text message or ‘beep’ you – a practice which means you call someone, let it ring once, hang up and thereby ask the other person to pay to call you back. In Ghana, people call each other! It was great, when you needed to tell somebody something, you just called them. There was no sending incomplete, complicated and coded messages but just simple straight-forward communication. You’d be surprised what a difference it makes; things become much more efficient – this all on top of being able to speak English came as quite a welcome relief.

My French has improved significantly since arriving in Mali. Everyday I conduct my life in French (aside from the time spent with other volunteers – which is probably more frequent that it should be). My proficiency isn’t to the point I would like to achieve before leaving here, but still better that when I arrived. I’m discovering I am going to need to put in a lot more effort if I am going to attain fluency. However, being able to talk to just about anyone in English was so nice you can hardly imagine – I just wanted to remind you all that life is conducted in French and that isn’t easy. I can’t just jump into any conversation on any topic. I am limited to my vocabulary which always is less than desired. Simply being able to converse with Ghanaians freely was great.

I think about all these differences and then about how different my life would be right now if I had been placed in a country like Ghana. The different relationships I would have with locals and how much further developed they might be. How my work and potential projects would have had that many less hurdles to jump over. Then again, where I am, to a degree is what I wanted. I wanted a challenging place where I could learn French. I didn’t want life to be easy, in fact if you really look at it, I wanted life to be harder than it is. I requested a small village where there would be no running water or electricity – but then in that setting, I wouldn’t be able to practice my French and would need to learn the local language.

Everything has its different trade-offs and in the end you just have to accept and make the best of your given situation. I’m doing my best to do precisely that. Only the end will tell and even then, not really. One must simply accept the fact that every Peace Corps experience is different – from continent to continent, region to region, country to country, city to village, and so on.

I don’t know exactly what I am trying to say here, other than that every experience is different, just like everyone’s lives anywhere and everywhere are different and in many ways incomparable, so is Peace Corps service. I’m going to wrap it up here and hopefully get another entry up soon to finish the details of my trip (like how I got the privilege to stay in a nut rehab center). Till then…

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Bamako, Mali overland to Accra, Ghana (and what a long road it was...)

Ok, so I'm back in Bamako, Mali now about to head to Segou this afternoon but thought I would try and at least start a little updating on my trip over the past month or so.

Let's see where to start...

On Monday the 14th of May, I hopped on a bus with Kathy headed for Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina-Faso (any of you having trouble pronouncing that city? Don't worry, I didn't have a clue myself until I got there. Really, just sound it out the way it is spelled or, as most people do, shorten it to "Waga"). We left at 8am prepped for the long journey ahead: 3 days on a bus until we arrived at Accra on the southern coast of West Africa (check out the map I have on the left side-bar for a little geography lesson - it was a long trek!). Many hours later, a 5 hour stop in Bobo after just missing the connecting bus, we finally arrived in (ok, say it with me) Ouagadougou about 4am the next day. Whew! Leg #1 complete.

We had expected to get in around 10 pm and get a chance to rest in the really nice Peace Corps rest house but with only a few hours till our next bus, we tried to catch few winks at the bus station. The preferred, nice - possibly even air-conditioned, but direct to Accra has left the day before on it's once weekly route so we were forced to find a 'no-name' company (CTI, see picture) to make our way south. If you've read my "transport" post, you'll know this was a bad idea and just asking for trouble - not to mention the fact it would be a almost 24 hour journey on the nice bus.

After all my travels around West Africa and especially after this trip, I've come to appreciate the perils and sheer danger involved with traveling by road around the region. On my entire trip, I saw at least five major accidents. Two were on this bus heading south before we even reached Ghana.

We arrived what must have been 10 minutes or so (just enough time for a large crowd to gather but not long enough for anything much else to have happened) to see a huge semi flipped over. Since we must have been the first vehicle to arrive, the driver and assistant were loaded on our bus to get a ride to the next town to get medical attention. The driver had a gash on the top of his head and the assistant had his right arm twisted around with the elbow on the wrong side of his arm. It was a pretty awful sight. To get an idea of how ignorant the people here are, everyone agreed and thought it was a good idea to pour half a bottle of some lady's perfume on the drivers head - all I can imagine is they thought the alcohol in the perfume would help, but jeez it must have hurt! We didn't get too far and just as we were arriving on the outskirts of the next town, an ambulance raced up and took them away. Hopefully they were OK.

The other accident I saw on this bus was the most disturbing. Throughout all of West Africa (besides Ghana) people get around on motos (a cross between a supped up moped or dumbed down motorcycle). Few people actually own a moto, but due to how poor most people are, if they own a motorized vehicle, it is a moto and not a car. Never-the-less, they also don't wear helmets - such a small percentage it is pretty much negligible. This adheres to the short-term view most Africans hold towards the future and how ingrained 'Inch-Allah' is in the culture - meaning 'if god wills it' or 'god willing'.

The bus slowed down (and as is typical, a lot of people on the bus stood-up or leaned into the aisle to see why) and approached a crowd of people that spilled into the road. We crawled by the edge of the crowd and from our elevated vantage point, got a glimpse of the scene as we continued down the road. There was a woman lying on her side at the edge of the road with another woman sitting by her side next to a large pool of blood. I'm pretty sure that woman was dead. We had slowed down but at the speed were going, I still only got a quick glimpse and was left with that image in my mind as we continued down the road. Tragic. Sobering. Real.

To be honest, I think we saw a few more accidents on the road south, but, as bad as it sounds, they are so frequent, I can't really recall when, where, etc. I saw an accident - I see so many. It scares you riding buses around when you frequently pass not only moto and car accidents, but pass by crumpled up buses and various other modes of transport that you frequently take. Trust me, I would rather choose other options and when I can I do, but usually I don't have a choice. That is life here, and the only way to get around is on these roads. You just hope that you don't meet the same fate.

The rest of our trip went as usual, we spent a lot of time stopping at gendarme stops and police checkpoints, stopped for a few hours to change a tire, and other various delays. Eventually, we arrived around 7 or 8am in Kumasi where we caught another bus the final 4-5 hours to the capital of Accra.

I'm going to end it here since I need to go catch my bus back to Segou. I'll try and write some more in the next few days to finish this multi part update on my Burkina/Ghana/Togo/Benin trip.

Where I've Been...